Strong mentorship is so much more than receiving career advice. A mentor relationship can enable any professional to hone her craft, navigate challenges and deepen expertise in her field. Research shows that in the long-term there are definitive career benefits that can come from the tailored advice and counsel of a mentor. While the imperative for business mentorship is real, the path to finding the right people to help guide your career is no easy task. Connecting with a mentor can be even more difficult for womxn and marginalized people who face challenges based on their identities, and who often have a harder time seeing themselves reflected in leadership within their fields.
Whether you’re starting a nonprofit, building up a consulting business, or navigating a raise, finding a mentor who will coach, challenge and inspire you is key. Here are 9 tips to guide your mentorship journey.
1. Where do you need support?
Before approaching a potential mentor, set aside time for self-reflection. Consider your strengths and where you need support. Think about the people in your professional world for whom you have genuine respect and admiration. Ask yourself what you want to learn from them. A mentor relationship can be a significant investment of time and energy from both mentor and mentee, so you want to be clear from the outset about your hopes for the relationship. Do you want advice about how to reach new audiences or markets? Do you want to learn how to navigate bias and discrimination in a white male-dominated field? Do you want coaching around how to build your staff? Excavating and honing in on your goals will allow you to be direct about what you are seeking and why, and will enable the potential mentor you’re approaching to think through what support they can bring, and whether they are a good fit.
2. Build a team
In her book, Minority Leader, gubernatorial candidate and former Georgia House of Representatives Minority Leader, Stacey Abrams, writes about curating a network of advisors—a team of people who had the skills, training or the jobs she sought. The advantage in recruiting a team rather than a singular mentor is that you have a panel of specialists to turn to when challenges or opportunities arise. Mentors can be particularly important for womxn, people of color, transgender folks, and other marginalized people who face structural barriers to their professional advancement. The wisdom inherent in a network of advisors can help build a much-needed community of support for marginalized people in business by building professional alliances and offering their own experiences dismantling gatekeeping structures in their fields.
3. Where are they? How to actually find a mentor
Whether you’re looking for a team of support or a single mentor—the big question is—how do you find one? Hopefully, you already know the first person you’d like to approach because, in order to give you insightful advice, a mentor should know you as well as you know them. Consider past bosses, professors, even peers, as you evaluate who in your life has a career that you want to emulate or expertise you want to learn. And a mentor need not be someone with decades more experience than you. If you’re looking for support around a specific experience, then peer mentorship may be your best bet, as these are the folks who have recently tread the path you’re heading down.
If you need to look beyond your current connections, there are plenty of options for broadening your circle of support. Coworking spaces offer a place to build community with entrepreneurs or peers in your field. There are even digital platforms from Bumble Network to industry-specific apps like CoffeeBreak, a Seattle-based tool that allows users to connect to engineers, investors, and others in the tech industry who may, down the line, be just the mentor you were looking for.
4. How are you supporting your mentor?
It might seem counterintuitive to consider how you bring value to your mentor/mentee relationship—isn’t your future success and growth value enough? The truth of the matter is, that while your mentor may bring a depth of experience, they are not all-knowing. Many mentors have reported that for them, a rewarding mentorship was mutual and allowed them to build their own leadership capacity, to gain clarity and perspective in their own career, and to remind themselves of the principles that got them to where they are today. As you develop your mentoring relationship, show that you’re worth the time and energy they’re devoting by responding to their advice and guidance so they understand what resonates. Another concrete benefit is that many mentors appreciate learning best practices and industry trends from emerging professionals. So, take the time to offer feedback to your mentor—let them know how they can better leverage their social media, or if you disagree with their last editorial piece—and show that you recognize the relationship as a two-way street.
5. Can you Google it?
If you can find the answer to your questions through an online search then you are not making the best use of your mentor’s skill or time. Do your due diligence and research your mentor’s background as well as doing a general scan of the resources already available before approaching your mentor with a problem. Use their time and your time together wisely by preparing for your conversations and ensuring that you are making valuable asks of them. You’ve both chosen to enter into this relationship for very particular reasons, so honor that. As a writer and activist adrienne maree brown advises, “start talking at the edge of what’s known”.
6. The Good, the bad, and the ugly
Critique. Praise. Inspiration. You want a mentor who is there for all of it, especially the tough stuff. In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown reminds us that the best leaders are those that offer clear and honest feedback—even when it’s something we may not want to hear. Perhaps, especially when it’s something we don’t want to hear. Brown classifies this direct feedback as “being clear to be kind.” You want a mentor who will offer the unvarnished truth about your work so that you can identify the issue, work together to address it and grow from the experience. Direct and difficult feedback from your mentor, who is interested in your long-term success, will ready you to face challenges and critiques in other aspects of your life. Be open to criticism and take from it what you can: Your work will be better off for it.
7. Take action
Mentors volunteer their expertise to positively impact others. Their years of risk-taking and curiosity, fears and doubts, allowed them some measure of success, and now they excited to share what they’ve learned with you. When you do put their ideas into action—be sure to follow up and let them know the outcome. If you decide not to take a piece of their advice and go another route, be honest about that and share the thinking behind your decision. Ultimately, every choice remains yours alone to make—your mentor is there to help you see the bigger picture, but what you make of their insights is up to you.
8. You can’t be what you can’t see
Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, is a vocal leader and advocate for mentorship—it’s a cornerstone of her nonprofit that aims to support more womxn to enter tech. She also practices what she preaches, spending 25% of her time mentoring others and responding to people who message her with career questions. As a woman of color, Saujani feels it is her responsibility to pay it forward and offer her time and wisdom to young womxn and people of color whose challenges she knows firsthand. “Growing up there were a lot of things my immigrant parents couldn’t help me with: raising money, applying for school…I want to give people the knowledge that I didn’t have.”
Once you’ve gotten to a stage in your career where you recognize that you have wisdom to pass along, consider how you can step up and become a visible resource and guide for others, in particular for people who may not often see their values, backgrounds, and identities reflected in leadership.
9. You’re the Captain.
Remember your team of advisors? Guess what? You’re the Team Captain. Don’t forget that mentors are just people, and you may not agree with their approach to every matter. And, you can’t replicate their path exactly. Your failures and successes will not be theirs. As you take in the wisdom and experience from your advisors, it’s important to remember that you are not accountable to your mentor(s), you are accountable to yourself. Balance input from advisors with research and readings, examinations of your own biases, and a thorough gut check so that you’re personalizing the advice of your mentors and making it your own. In your career, as in any other aspect of your life, you need to make choices you’ll be proud of for years to come.
Poet Audre Lorde wrote, “Tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone; who lend the best of ourselves to it and with joy.”
In business and in life, no one goes it alone. We rely on support and collaboration to find our way, and mentorship is an opportunity to shape the future with a community of support—lending the best of themselves—behind us.
Alli Auldridge wears her heart on her sleeve, writing, working, parenting and dancing in Seattle.